Operating in one of the most remote areas of Australia’s southern-most state, battered by the relentless winds of the roaring forties, two local operators recognise the need for careful planning, reliable communication and a high standard of equipment maintenance.
The Grining family – owners of World Heritage Cruises – have been operating in the area since 1896, when they carried supplies to the mining and timber industries and the early settlers along Tasmania’s west coast in the 1800s. They became much more active in the cruise market in the 1980s.
Gordon River Cruises has been operating on the river, in Macquarie Harbour and nearby waters since 1987. Its latest vessel is a 33-metre diesel-electric hybrid catamaran, allowing it to move through the ancient landscape in silent mode using just its e-motors.
Gordon River General Manager Geoff Eyers said Strahan’s remoteness was both a challenge and an attraction for visitors and staff.
“We are over two hours’ drive from Burnie in Tasmania’s northwest, and over four hours from the state’s capital, Hobart, making staff recruitment and vessel maintenance quite challenging,” he said.
“We need to be self-sufficient by making sure we have specialised skill sets in our team and maintaining a robust preventative maintenance program, and our crew must all be aware of the risks in the area to minimise incidents,” he added.
Macquarie Harbour presents environmental challenges for new skippers, with depths ranging from 50 centimetres to 30 metres – some of it uncharted – but according to Geoff, the weather presents the toughest challenge.
“It rains about 300 days a year and is exposed to very strong westerly and northwesterly winds. Since installing new and advanced wind gear to assist our skippers, we have recorded true wind speeds in excess of 65 knots,” Geoff said.
Joint owner of World Heritage Cruises, Troy Grining said that when the vessels sail to Hobart in the winter to undertake maintenance surveys – a trip of 200 nautical miles around the southern coast of Tasmania – the elements take a toll on the craft.
‘These challenges are all manageable of course, but we would not have to contend with them in a more settled and less weather-intense area,’ he said.
Operators are proactive about identifying and mitigating risk, operational rules and keeping staff trained.
Geoff explained that every Tuesday afternoon the skippers and crew undergo safety training, where they cover operational and emergency safety procedures including anchoring, flooding, grounding, man overboard, and bomb threats.
Troy added that even with safety at front of mind, things can still go wrong. When this happens both operators take the opportunity to learn and improve their safety management system.
“In addition to reporting our incidents to AMSA [Australian Maritime Safety Authority], we review incidents and examine how we can do things better, putting the changes into practice as quickly as possible,” Troy said.
Geoff said that recently Gordon River Cruises experienced a loss of steering control as the vessel left the river, which ultimately resulted in a number of new operational procedures and protocols after they had examined exactly what went wrong.
“The incident was caused when a passenger visiting the wheelhouse as a part of the tour, inadvertently knocked a circuit breaker to the ‘off’ position, causing the steering pump to stop, and resulting in the starboard hull hitting the sandbank,” Geoff said.
“There was no serious damage, but the debrief and investigation following the incident resulted in plastic covers being made for the breakers so that people nearby wouldn’t inadvertently knock them in future.
“And passenger management became a greater priority for the master – we now limit access to the helm during times of high demand,” he said.
Troy said passengers moving around the vessel on wet decks in rough weather is always a significant risk.
Both companies conduct passenger inductions prior to departure. The presentations include lifejacket demonstrations, life-raft and muster stations, weather briefings, the importance of following crew directions, introductions to the crew, the need for caution when moving around the vessel, and external deck precautions.
In a medical emergency, the remoteness of the location means that the time it takes to reach medical assistance is a significant risk, which is covered off in their safety management systems
“In some cases, vessels can be an hour away from medical help in Strahan and more than two hours away from the closest hospital,” Geoff concluded.
Source: Australian Maritime Safety Authority Working Boats, January 2020.